Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Blind spots

Authors reveal more in their work, sometimes, than they may have intended.

That thought crossed my mind more than once while reading the book Hadrian by British historian, antiquarian, diplomat, and writer Stewart Perowne.  The book is a history and biography of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who was the emperor of Rome from 117 to 138 C.E.  Hadrian is considered to be one of the better rulers Rome had -- generally fair-minded, astute, and intelligent -- although considering he's competing against guys like Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and Elagabalus, that may not be a very high bar.

A sculpture of the emperor Hadrian, circa 130 C. E. [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Djehouty, München SMAEK 2019-03-23n, CC BY-SA 4.0]

The book, which was published in 1960, was interesting enough, if a bit dry and pedantic at times (did we really need an entire chapter devoted to minute details about the architecture of the Pantheon?).  But there were a couple of times that what he wrote made me do a double-take.

The first time came when he was discussing the Roman program of expansion and colonization, and engaged in a digression comparing it to the policies of the British Empire between the eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries.  Perowne writes:

No other country has ever had a finer or more generous record in its dealings with other races than the English.  No great power, since history began, has occupied, and advanced to autonomous sovereignty, so large an extent of territory in so short a period.  The advance, it is true, was from the very first, when the American colonists set the precedent, encouraged by the inhabitants of the territory concerned; nevertheless, it did not take long for England to adopt as a principle that the aim of all colonial enterprise is the elevation of the colonials, and their establishment as independent states, in whatever form of association they may choose with Great Britain. 

Say what?

I think there are citizens of a few nations I can think of who would beg to differ.  Great Britain fought like hell not to let a good many of their colonies gain their independence.  It was only when faced with sustained revolt -- and the impossibility of continuing a minority rule over the unwilling -- that they grudgingly granted sovereignty.  (And a great many of those nations are still struggling to overcome the long-term effects of colonialism -- oppression, exploitation, wealth inequality, and bigotry.)

I know there's the whole "man of his time" thing you hear about writers in the past, and which has been used to look past even the horrific racism that threads through a lot of the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft.  Here, it's not quite that extreme, but was still kind of startling to read.  And perhaps there are still a good many of us who have the tendency to consider our own country as intrinsically superior, even if we wouldn't necessarily put it that way.  But it's somewhere between baffling and appalling that someone who was a historian, who devoted his life to investigating and understanding other cultures -- who, in fact, worked as a diplomat in Malta, Aden, Iraq, Barbados, Libya, and Israel -- could come away with the impression of the British Empire as the Gentle Guides of the Civilized World.

Stewart Perowne in 1939, while serving in the British diplomatic corps in Libya [Image is in the Public Domain]

Now, mind you, I'm not saying the British were any worse than a lot of other militaristic colonial powers.  The history of the world is one long sorry tale of the powerful exploiting the weak.  But to write what Perowne did, especially with his extensive knowledge and experience, is evidence of a blind spot a light year wide.

Then there was the sniffy, superior bit he threw in about Hadrian's male lover, Antinoüs.  Hadrian, in fact, was pretty clearly gay.  He was married to an apparently rather obnoxious woman named Vibia Sabina, but the marriage was an unhappy one and produced no children.  His devotion and love for Antinoüs, however, was the stuff of legends; the two were inseparable.

Hadrian and Antinoüs [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, Marble Busts of Hadrian & Antinoüs, from Rome, Roman Empire, British Museum (16517587460), CC BY-SA 2.0]

Perowne writes:

It was in Bithynia that Hadrian formed his famous and fatal attachment to Antinoüs, a lad of whose origin nothing is known, except that he came from the city of Bithynion...  Antinoüs, at the time when Hadrian met him, must have been a lad of about eighteen.  He was broad-shouldered and quite exceptionally handsome...  Whether the relations between the emperor Hadrian and his beautiful young favorite were carnal or not, we cannot be sure.  But what we can be certain of is this: that for the next nine years Antinoüs was the emperor's inseparable companion, that many people did suppose their association was based on a physical relationship, and that they did not reprobate it in the least...  However much we may deplore this fact, it simply is not possible to equate ancient and modern canons of morality.

He can't even bring himself to write "homosexual" -- but comments that it is unsurprising that later Roman authors used the word Bithynian as "a euphemism for something vile."

After reading this, you may be shocked to find out that Stewart Perowne himself was gay.

In a bizarre parallel to Hadrian's own life, Perowne reluctantly agreed to marry explorer and writer Freya Stark in 1947, but the marriage was unhappy, childless, and possibly even unconsummated.  Eventually the two divorced after it became obvious that Perowne's sexual orientation wasn't going to change.  He finally put it into writing to his wife, but once again meticulously avoided using the word homosexual:

It is difficult to say what "normal" is – my friend a counsellor of St. George's Hospital always refuses to use the word and in both men and women, you have a wide and graded range from ultra-male to ultra-female with naturally most people in the middle ranges...  Now for myself, I put myself in the middle group.  I have ordinary male abilities.  I like male sports some of them, and I love the company of women.  In fact, I find it hard to exist without it.  At the same time, I am occasionally attracted by members of my own sex – generally.  For some even pleasurable reason – by wearers of uniform.

I was simultaneously appalled and heartbroken to read those words, from the pen of the same man who called Hadrian's love for Antinoüs "something vile" and implied people were right to "deplore" it.  How deeply sunk in self-loathing would you have to be to be able to write both of those passages?

That a culture could produce such a tortured and damaged soul is a horrible tragedy.  And how many others did this happen to, men and women we don't know about because they never ended up in the public eye, but lived their entire lives in fear, shame, and obscurity, never able to openly love who they loved for fear of condemnation, imprisonment, or even death?

I'd like to think we've grown beyond that, but then I look around me at my own culture, where books are currently being banned merely for including queer people -- where even mentioning we exist is apparently improper -- and I realize that it's still going on.

So my reading of Hadrian got me thinking about way more than just a long-ago emperor of a classical European civilization.  It started me wondering about my own blind spots, things about myself and my culture that I take for granted as The Way Things Should Be, and which a future civilization might rightly shake their heads at.  

And thinking about Perowne himself made me recognize what complex, contradictory, and fragile creatures we humans are.  Will we ever find a way to move past all the antiquated hidebound moralizing, and simply treat each other with kindness, dignity, and compassion?  To live by the rule that has been set up as a guiding light in many cultures, but is best known in its biblical form -- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"?


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